"Clear History" (premieres Sat., Aug. 10 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO) is to blame for keeping Larry David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" off the air for almost two years now (and counting), but don't hold that against the movie.
Directed by Greg Mottola, "Clear History" takes the same approach as "Curb" -- going off of a very loose outline, and letting the actors improv from there -- to tell the story of Nathan Flomm (David), a marketing exec who shoots his mouth off and leaves his company just before they launch a new car that makes them all billionaires. Flomm then changes his name and moves to a small town to spare himself the public shame, but it's not long before his past comes back to haunt him. The movie also stars Jon Hamm, Kate Hudson, Michael Keaton, Amy Ryan, Philip Baker Hall, Bill Hader, Danny McBride and David's frequent "Curb" sparring partner J.B. Smoove, and features music and a memorable cameo by the band Chicago.
I caught up with Mottola to talk about the movie, all the fun cameos and how he landed the gig. "Someone told Larry to watch 'Adventureland' -- that it might be his sensibility enough that he'd tolerate it," Mottola said. "And he liked it. He liked that it was dry and not so jokey ... I was gonna say he wanted someone balder than him. [Laughs.] I don't know why he got along with me."
He also dished about the future of "Curb": "He hasn't told me," Mottola said about whether or not David will be back for more of his hit HBO series. "I can't imagine him not working though. That guy does not like to not work ... he told me what his ideas were if there was a next season and it's great. But I'm not allowed to say. And he may have changed his mind 10 times since then, but I'm like, 'Do it!'"
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"Curb" works so well on so many levels that I was cautiously optimistic about another Larry David movie and seeing Larry in a longer format again. Were you the same way?
Yeah. What kept me awake at night was the fear that the movie will be too much like "Curb Your Enthusiasm," or the movie won't be enough like "Curb Your Enthusiasm." [Laughs.] It was like an impossible problem to solve. But at the end of the day I decided I'm not going to try and get all fancy and director-y and impose a visual thing on it with lots of camera moves … because it's a performance film. Everyone's improvising so the camera kind of needs to sit still to get the performances. You need to be there at the right place, right time, hopefully, for when lightning strikes, because that's the whole nature of the style. You just hope that something happens. That was always what Larry would tell me, and I think he's right. It's a scary way to work, but it's also an exciting way to work, and it's tremendous fun when you have that group of actors.
It's a ridiculous list of actors.
It's kind of insane. Well that was also a fear -- the actors are so good, there's no way this movie can't disappoint people because this is such a great cast. [Laughs.] There's no movie good enough for this cast.
So there was a short outline instead of a script, which is how Larry likes to work, correct?
Yeah, it was like a 35-page outline. Every scene is broken down -- Larry and his co-writers think a lot about structure, reveals, twists and how is he, inevitably, going to be hoisted on his own petard. All of that story stuff is worked out carefully, but each scene just has like a paragraph describing the action, and maybe an occasional line that they thought of in the room that they thought was hilarious. "We've gotta get that line!" But otherwise, no dialogue. Every scene we did, we'd block it out and no one would do any acting or any rehearsal at all without the cameras rolling. Every rehearsal was shot -- some of the first takes were just complete disasters, with cameramen smashing into each other.
Was the entire cast in place when you signed on? Or did it start coming together after that?
The only person that was really talked about in a serious way before I got involved was Jon Hamm. And J.B. Smoove. They wrote that part for J.B. But once I tricked Larry into hiring me, we got into it. Some people read -- and I don't really want to say who, because I don't want it to make it sound like there's some pecking order -- but there are people in the movie who I think normally would not have to read, but wanted to because they wanted to show themselves that they could be comfortable doing it. Or they wanted to say to Larry, "Look I'm not known for doing improv, but I think I can do this." Because it's Larry! People will do things for Larry that they won't do for anyone else.
He has a very Woody Allen-like effect on people … you don't have to have a script, or even know your part. If Larry calls, you say yes and figure it out later.
Yeah. The cool thing is Larry is tremendous fun to be around too. I've said this before, but he is like a shockingly happy person.
He really is -- but somehow still an asshole! [Laughs.]
Oh yeah … [laughs] no, he hates people. But, you know, he owns it.
Who surprised you the most with their improv abilities?
Eva Mendes was a part that we weren't thinking of a type like her whatsoever -- that just wasn't who the part was on paper -- and Larry brought her up as someone he'd met socially and said he ran into her and talked to her about it, and I said, "That could be great." But we just didn't know -- like, would she want to do that? And how does she feel about putting on a fat suit? Turns out, she loves the fat suit. I think she did it more for the fat suit than Larry, even. She was such a pleasure -- she was really so fun -- and she was dying to do something really silly.
For Jon Hamm, we all know he can do funny, but this is a complete 180 from his other job -- on "Mad Men," he has to say every single word, as written, and then here, nothing is written.
It's weird -- he just would drop right into it. I think he thought about it -- sometimes I think he came with a few ideas in his back pocket, but it was like people playing chess. He and Larry together … he could totally hold his own. His improv stuff, there was just way too much good stuff to fit into the movie. Every take, he was great.
Where's the gag reel?
Um, I don't know if Larry would allow a gag reel. He never does cut scenes -- and considering the first cut of this movie, being improv, was three hours long …
Are you joking?
No, we cut a lot of scenes just to get it down to an hour and 40 minutes. The three-hour version is punishingly awful. [Laughs.] But I like the short version! Larry is disciplined -- he lives with things for a long time, and massages and massages, and that's very different for me to have the actor and writer in the editing room the whole time, but it was great. That's the way he re-writes.
Were there any major disagreements in the editing room?
We disagreed on a couple of things, but we'd hear each other out and suffer all those decisions. But Larry is not that precious -- there's only occasional things, like a line that he really wants to work, but there's some slapstick stuff that we cut from the movie that really made me laugh. But I was like, "Shit, he's right -- we can't slow the story down for this bit, this one funny joke." But not everyone's like that. Not everyone is willing to let go of stuff -- he's brutal.
What else can you tease about the movie that you think fans will love?
I'm really excited about Michael Keaton. My first ever job in the movie business, I was an art student at Carnegie Mellon and they were shooting the movie "Gung Ho" in Pittsburgh and I worked as an extra for a few days. Michael Keaton bumped into me in one scene and it's in the movie. And I worshipped him. And he obviously semi-dropped out of sight for a while -- he was really lying low, directing a bit, doing things very sporadically -- and I think he's really come to a place where he's ready to get out there and do more stuff. And there's still no one quite like him. His brain works in a way that's different from other people. I really enjoyed watching him, and I hope other people enjoy him as much as I do. Seeing him play this sort of Captain Quint, with a little bit of "Beetlejuice" and the gravelly voice, and really demented and sweet at this same time ...
With a bit of an unkempt "Mr. Mom" thing happening ...
Yes, exactly! There were levels! [Laughs.] We were kind of traveling through time. There's too many good people in the movie.
And Chicago. For an entire generation, it'll mean nothing! It had to be a band that would make sense for the story ... in the original version, it was the Bee Gees, and then we were down to a Bee Gee, so that was a little sad. It just had to be a band that it was funny that they'd have groupies. If it was some rock bank like Motley Crue, of course they have them, but Chicago? Really? I suffer from too much nostalgia, I'll admit, but it was fun to cut scenes to those songs. They don't make music like that anymore, and all those cliches ... but they really don't. And they may have a point not making music like that anymore. [Laughs.] Please don't put that in the piece.
"Clear History" premieres Saturday, August 10 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.
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